The BBC included Sister Gerard Fernandez in its list of '100 Inspirational Women 2019.'
As we near the end of 2019, people are beginning to look back on the year at the individuals and events that have defined it. The BBC, for example, has compiled a list of 100 women considered inspirational in a multitude of different contexts.
Among the 100 women proposed by the BBC, one has been completely hidden and silent for 35 years, in order to protect the success of her mission. She is a Catholic nun from Singapore and her name is Sister Gerard Fernandez. She spent a good part of her life on death row—that is, accompanying prisoners condemned to death, doing her best to open their hearts to ask for and accept forgiveness, and preparing them to meet God. The story of this religious sister takes us into the most sordid depths of the human soul where, indeed, only the power of God’s mercy can reach.
A truly black sheep
Today Sister Gerard is 81 years old. She finished her mission in prison in 2017, which is why her story can now be told; for all the years she was at the side of those condemned to death, she too was “dead to the world,” that is, she performed her mission in secret and in silence.
It probably makes sense to tell this story starting with the most shocking episode: In 1981, Singapore was shaken by a terrible event: the killing of two children in order to perform a magical ritual at the hands of an alleged medium, Adrian Lim, with the collaboration of his wife Catherine Tan and another woman. All three were sentenced to death. Sister Gerard was deeply affected by the tragedy, because she knew one of the victims, who was only 9 years old, and she also know the father of Catherine Tan, one of the murderers.
She wrote to Tan, who replied from prison after six months, signing the letter as “Catherine, a black sheep.” The nun went to visit her in prison, where she says was met by the culprit’s sad eyes that said to her: “You haven’t condemned me. Please help me change.”
Going after the lost sheep
The parable of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to follow the one that is lost could almost be called romantic. What it means to accept the request for help of a murderer who killed two children pulls us to the brink of a cliff that not all shepherds, however good, would be willing to go down.
With a serene voice that patiently measures out her words, Sister Gerard explains to a journalist, with amazing candor and radical humility: “There is still hope in their hearts, and this has changed me.” The starting point is not the will to change someone who is “bad,” but the fact of being changed by a glimmer of light glimpsed in eyes of a person no one would like to meet.
She stayed seven years praying at Catherine Tan’s side, until the day she was hanged. Starting then, Fernandez’s place was on death row (executions in Singapore continue to increase in number). Throughout her 35 years, she came to know many different stories, but with one common denominator: “They begin to face death, to know a day will come when they will be told, ‘This is your last week. On Friday, you will be hanged.” Now, I’ve walked with them, preparing them for that moment. And when that moment came, their hearts were ready.” ()
Using a rather inadequate image for such a serious context, we might think of a bouncer stationed at the entrance of a chic night club, who selects who may enter. Sister Gerard is the “anti-bouncer”: she throws souls in, not out. She has made herself available to accompany and encourage those sincerely open to returning to God, even under a thick blanket of sin. There is no sinner willing to take the step who cannot be guided to repentance.
“Don’t make me out to be a saint”
Sr. Fernandez has been too much in touch with the realities of life and death to be flattered by the attention she is now getting. She says, “Don’t make me out to be a saint, because I’m not. My ego can be as big as a satellite. But I try to use the dark moments to become better.” (from The Straits Times)
Calling her a saint could be taking the easy way out. Yes, she’s admirable, but her example is not beyond reach. Her life teaches us that God can lead us, little by little, to places we never would have imagined in His service. Some are called to live their Christian mission to the extreme, on the peripheries, but sometimes those peripheries are within us. All of us carry inside us certain dark corners of our heart that we don’t want to open to God, because we deem them too shameful, too unsightly. Yet, there is no dark corner that God cannot illuminate with the light of his grace and forgiveness. We are all called to conversion, and we are all called to recognize that God’s mercy is greater than any sin — ours or someone else’s.